Despite the peaceful nature of last year’s protest rallies, Russian authorities have been growing nervous. For the first time in almost two decades, people have been voicing political opinions in the company of many thousands of like-minded citizens.
In May, however, the semblance of a civilized protest in a civilized country was shattered when protesters clashed with riot police, with injuries on both sides. Whatever the scale of the provocation, police brutality on such a scale is usually directed from above. The next day, newly elected President Vladimir Putin and his cortège drove to his inauguration in the Kremlin through eerily empty streets, with no traffic or pedestrians anywhere – a media picture unlike anything seen before.
With the reshuffling of upper echelons and the presidential administration reclaiming its power after four years of Dmitry Medvedev’s placeholder presidency, the Kremlin has launched a new sort of counter-offensive.
Ever since Putin first took control 12 years ago, political repression has almost always been dressed up as something else, with activists being charged with drug possession, non-compliance with fire or safety regulations or anything else administrators and the police cared to invent. the most telling example of such policy was the charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his oil company, invariably phrased as ‘economic crimes’.
But, just before adjourning for the summer recess, the newly elected Duma passed a number of laws that did not even attempt to conceal their anti-opposition nature. Each of them was a source of dismay and bewilderment to the intelligentsia and legal professionals.
One law called for all NGOs receiving any funding from non-Russian sources to be labelled as ‘foreign agents’. Another instituted ‘the registry of prohibited websites’, the first serious step towards internet censorship. Yet another called for the curbing of volunteer activity, one of the few good things to have happened in Russian civil society in recent years. Calumny, decriminalized less than a year ago, was recriminalized. Exorbitant fines were set for unauthorized gatherings, making any wedding or barbecue outing ‘illegal’.
Perhaps the most glaring example is the absurd trial of three young female members of anarchist band Pussy Riot. With virtually nothing to charge them with legally, the prosecution comically appealed to Church councils of the fourth and eighth century as the basis for their legal reasoning. The women’s crime was a ‘punk prayer’ in Moscow’s largest church: ‘Hail Mary, drive Putin away.’ Several months behind bars now, they are still waiting for both their arguments and their prayer to be heeded.